Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Dark Ones by Rachel Van Dyken



I read this book for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2017 Reading Challenge. For more info about what this is, click here.

When I was a teenager, I used to spend all my time on this great site called Quizilla. It's now defunct, but it was basically the early 00s version of Wattpad + personality quizzes. With a few discerning clicks, you could find out which dysfunctional Care Bear you were (Nihilism bear), what weapon you were (sais), what element you were (water), or just forgo all of that and spend your time reading poorly written fanfiction or vampire smut.

One of the popular stories at the time was this serialized PNR, written in the second person in a "choose your own adventure" format, called "Would an Angel, a Demon, or a Vampire Fall for You?" The heroine was YOU, and as you read the story you would "choose" various actions and then the "result" would be a scene with the character that you were "meant" to end up with (i.e. the angel, the demon, or the vampire).

I bring this up, because Rachel Van Dyken's DARK ONES reminded me of this smutty story, except instead of an angel, a demon, and a vampire, it's about an angel, a siren, a werewolf, and a vampire. The heroine is not YOU, but she might as well be for all the personality she has. Like Bella Swan and her ilk, she's basically a place-holder for the reader; she's been told her whole life that she's ugly (and of course she believes it, because blonde hair and light eyes are so hideous), never mind the fact that all these paranormal frat boys are falling over her left and right, even though it's Forbidden. Smells play a key role in the sensory experience of the story. Everyone smells like a Bath and Body Works. Sex is a key plot point, and has the power to Change the World. There are dream sequences. The world is half-assed and not explained. The heroine is a virgin but comes like the hero just Konami Coded the hell out of her vag. It is, literally, just like those smutty, terrible stories I read as a teenager.

Ironically, that ended up being the book's saving grace. As with DEAD SEED, an actual story that I read on Quizilla that was "cleaned up" (no) and republished, I found it hard to be mad at something that had brought me such joy as a sad, angst-ridden little teen, no matter how badly (so, so badly) it was written. Plus, I picked this book up while it was free, so there was zero financial stake.

That said, this is the second book by Dyken that didn't work for me (the first was her new one, CHEATER). I'm thinking that her style might just be totally incompatible with my tastes. Still, it was cool to revisit the past, and I knocked one book off the Kindle, and got to do a great buddy read with some ladies from my Goodreads romance group, so let's not call it a total loss.

Read Sarah's review here, Heather's review here, and Celestine's review here.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann



You might know me as Nenia Campbell, but my full title is Queen of Literary Trash, Protector of Out-of-Print Gems, Khaleesi of Bodice Rippers, Mother of Smut, the Unrepentant, Breaker of Convention, Lady of Take Your Misogyny and F*ck It. So obviously when the Goodreads blurb for this book advertises VALLEY OF THE DOLLS as an "addictively entertaining trash classic," you know I just have to read it.

For several days, the adventures of Neely, Anne, and Jennifer held me in thrall. I figuratively clutched at my pearls. I felt my insides figuratively curdle in disgust. I cringed, I laughed, I teared up. These women sometimes made me want to slap a witch, but they were nuanced and interesting and fascinating. The writing fell somewhere in between Susanna Kaysen's GIRL, INTERRUPTED and Jackie Collins's ROCK STAR.

Which is it, you wonder: social commentary or trash?

Now that I've finished the book, I'm wondering, though, if the people who are calling this book "trash" read the same book as me. It's written in the vein of a lot of other books about superficiality, like Bret Easton Ellis's LESS THAN ZERO (or anything written by Bret Easton Ellis, really), or anything by J.D. Sallinger, but in particular, THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED, or anything by... oh, who the hell else out there plays the siren song for the disaffected and overly ambitious? But those books have received critical acclaim and are praised as literature. This...isn't.

Here's the thing, though - VALLEY OF THE DOLLS is a book about women. Specifically, about women during the Civil Rights Era, at a time when women were suddenly allowed to pursue their own dreams while also being held to the outmoded conventions and expectations of the previous decade. Sure, you can have your career, but only while your looks last, and people are still going to judge you by the men you're roping in and whether or not you've managed to keep them. And all the while, you have men standing on the sidelines, gaslighting you: "Why are you complaining? You've won! Look how successful you are, you dumb broad. We've achieved equality for you ungrateful bitches - now shut up and be grateful." Let me tell you, some of the nastiest comments I've gotten from people on this site were from the angry dudes who were mad at me for writing negative reviews about their beloved man-lits. And let me tell you something else - that those men who bawl the hardest over criticism of said man-lits are often also the first - and the loudest - to condemn and marginalize typically female-dominated genres, like romance novels or women's lit.

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS seems like trash because on the surface it's about several young women who become raging successes but can't deal with Hollywood and New York's respective brands of sleaze and pressure, so they turn to drugs to ease the burden and let them sleep at night. They booze, they pop pills, they sleep around. Everyone's beautiful - at first - and charming - at first. It's a bit like a soap opera. But this is different than the usual brand of "pretty people f*cking"-type books, because if you read between the lines, there's some very cutting social commentary on marriage, on success, on double standards, on beauty, on happiness, on equality - on virtually any subject you can think of. And it's interesting that while books like Bret Easton Ellis are lauded as classics and their odious male antiheroes are, if not beloved than at least regarded with fascination or interest, books starring flawed and odious female characters are far less apt to be forgiven and much more likely to be panned by critics as trashy or morally suspect.

I think one of the crowning examples of this mindset are the Judd Apatow style bro comedies about unattractive slackers who end up inexplicably getting a beautiful woman who finds their man-child mentality quirky and refreshing. It's like an inverse of the manic pixie dream girl trope - except that the woman is still the medium through which the man's narrative journey is developed and carried, even when this trope is turned on its head. The woman is either the prize of his narrative arc, or the vehicle through which he is carried through the arc. There is little to no agency. She has no hopes, no dreams, no ambitions... because that would eclipse the journey of the hero. The women in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS are in full control of the wheel - they might be driving their vehicles off the road or in some cases, crashing them in headon collisions, but they are in full control of their vehicles; they are the ones piloting their own destinies, even if society is limiting the roads. That's what made this book so compelling for me. It's utterly brilliant. And utterly heartbreaking.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Flame of Savannah by Maggie Lyons



I read this book for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2017 Reading Challenge. For more info about what this is, click here.

I love the covers on these vintage romance novels from the 70s and 80s and FLAME OF SAVANNAH was no exception. You can imagine my surprise and delight then when I found the entire series on Amazon, for 99-cents each. I bought all six books because I learned my mistake last year, when Patricia Hagan's books were pulled from Amazon Kindle without warning! I had only bought books 1-3 and was planning on buying the next five volumes after I'd saved up some, and when I came back...they were gone! ...GONE!

I WAS NOT GOING TO MAKE THAT MISTAKE AGAIN.

Perhaps this optimism was unwise, but what can I say, but #FOMO. As it turns out, it may have been a good decision because I really found myself enjoying FLAME OF SAVANNAH quite a bit. Maggie Lyons is actually the penname of author Michael Llewellyn, so I was prepared for some Jennifer Wilde-type high-jinks, and an OTT plot laden with all sorts of crazy sauce adventures starring a promiscuous heroine who's basically sex on legs, as she navigates the carnal, un-PC world of the Antebellum South. I have read enough bodice rippers that it would be foolish to have expected anything less...

But - FLAME OF SAVANNAH is not a bodice ripper. If anything, it's more like one of those Southern Gothic novels from the 70s that Jennifer Blake used to write (except with more sex). The plot revolves around four characters - Cathleen, Melinda, Geoffrey, and Aaron. Cathleen and Melinda are best friends in Savannah, and move about in the upper circles of society on the cusp of their respective debuts. Then the arrival of two very different men shatter their previous plans, threatening both ruin and passion. Aaron is a Jewish architect, much to the horror of Cathleen's parents. And Geoffrey is a member of the English nobility...although he and his bodyguard have a dark secret.

The last half of the novel feels more Gothic than the first. The first half has a GONE WITH THE WIND feel (pre-war) and is charming but bland. The second half is all action, and involves creepy castles with torture dungeons; yellow jack (yellow fever) outbreaks; voodoo; brothels; sex scenes; family secrets; murder attempts; revenge plots; escapes; misunderstandings; inheritances; and death. (I feel like I'm summarizing THE PRINCESS BRIDE, the way that grandfather did in the movie.)

I know a lot of you guys following me swear that bodice rippers/vintage romance novels aren't for you, but I urge you to pick this one up if you're at all interested in reading these types of books. I really loved the female characters in this book - they had great dimension and were flawed and interesting, and the friendship between Cathleen and Melinda was quite sweet. I also loved how the author portrayed the etiquette of the South, especially with "frenemy" type women. The relationships between all the various characters was utterly fascinating.

Plus, that cover.

P.S. I thought it was really interesting that this book included the lyrics to "Lay This Body Down" at one point because I literally just read another book that included those lyrics too called BELOVED ENEMY. I Googled it, and it looks like it was a slave song from the South, so that makes sense. Anyway, I just thought that was interesting. I like it when historical details sync up like that!

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 28, 2017

Cheyenne Captive by Georgina Gentry



I read this book for the Unapologetic Romance Readers' New Years 2017 Reading Challenge. For more info about what this is, click here.

Native American romances were super popular in the 80s for some reason, and up until *peers at shelves* last year, I had never read one before... which is partially the reason behind why I "tricked" my entire romance reading group into reading the Native American bodice ripper, SAVAGE ECSTASY. The title ought to clue you into how this little gem rates on the PC scale.

I got CHEYENNE CAPTIVE when it was free for Kindle. The reviews on Goodreads were mostly positive. "Why not?" I figured. As one of my friends pointed out on my status updates, at least the word "savage" was nowhere to be found in the title. That, at least, should have been a good sign. Right? ...right?!

Let me show you the literal first line of the book: 

 Summer Priscilla Van Schuyler had never given a thought to the possibility of being raped and murdered by a band of renegade-Indians (1%). 

I see your ha and raise you a ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Ha.

CHEYENNE CAPTIVE is one of the worst romances I have had the pleasure of reading in a while. It is the type of book people who don't read romance novels use to make fun of the romance novel genre as a whole because this book (or one like it) is the one they flipped through out of curiosity that one time as a child when they found the book sitting on their mother's coffee table. It is so terrible that it is almost good because it takes irony to the very heights of soaring ecstasy.

***WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW***

The plot is simple. Summer "Do you know who I am?" Schuyler is the daughter of a rich man who ends up being taken captive by Native Americans. The one who catches her, Angry Wolf, taunts her with rape, followed by gang-bangs and then fire torture, when one of his tribesmen shows up and quickly puts a stop to that. Her savior is Iron Knife, one of those cringe-worthy "half-breeds," who is portrayed as being superior to the other NAs simply because he's half-white.

Iron Knife does not rape Summer, but he does end up taking her as a slave, and she lives in his cabin and looks pretty and sad and sickly, because she has an infected wound on her arm that he must heal. She ends up going into a fever from it, and when she awakes, suddenly Iron Knife is the greatest and the two of them go from being captor and captive to I love you pookykins, no, I love you, pookykins rather sickeningly quickly as the reader is treated to a medley of sex scenes like these:

"Little One, I am built very big! You are a virgin-"
"I'm YOUR virgin!" she breathed against his lips.
"But I have promised you will never be hurt again!" he protested.
"Hurt me!" she begged as she kissed him deeply. "Hurt me as I want to be hurt!" (15%)

And then her need was so great she could think of nothing else but plunging her tongue deep in his sucking mouth, grinding her body down on the pulsating dagger that impaled her womanhood (23%).

She felt him forcing her thighs even further apart and she forgot about everything but the sensation of the blade of his warm tongue sliding home in her scabbard (33%).

She felt as though she were impaled on a hot, fiery sword (59%). 

She surrendered to her ecstasy and began a dream ride at dizzying speed across Ekutsihimmiyo, the Milky Way. Nothing could be better than this peak of passion they were approaching together (96%).

It is tedious and repetitive. Most of the 80s romances I've read don't have explicit sex scenes. Georgina Gentry says tah-tah to that, and the hero and heroine engage in all sorts of "risque" behavior like oral sex (he reciprocates, she's a blow-job goddess); role-play (that is literally where the title comes in; he is the "master" and she is his "Cheyenne captive"); and cowgirl ("Ride your stallion!" the hero cries at one point; plot-twist, he's not talking about his horse).

The saving grace of this book is the scheming bad guys. Angry Wolf was pretty stock, as far as bad guys go, and was dispensed with quickly without a whole lot of development (although he does threaten to rape the heroine and then cover her with honey so she'll be eaten by fire ants). The real stars of the show were Jake Dallinger and Gray Dove.

I just read this great bodice ripper by Amanda York/Joan Dial called BELOVED ENEMY and it also featured a real lame-o heroine, who was made even more lame in comparison when compared with the amazingly beautiful and cunning other woman, Indigo. (I think it's also interesting that both OWs are women of color and very much in tune with their sexuality, as opposed to their virginal blonde opposites.) That's how I felt about Gray Dove.

Gray Dove is from a neighboring tribe called the Arapho and she is brutal. She sacrificed her baby brother and tortured her mom at the behest of their murderers, because she was desperate to survive, and then lets them rape her to stall for time before killing them. When she gets pregnant, she gives herself an abortion with a "rusty wire" (*cries*) & sleeps with the husband of the woman who took her in, only to leave them both by destroying all their belongings as she leaves on a rolling carpet of give-no-f*cks. She then betrays her own people and starts a war that results in many of them getting disfigured or killed - all to get back at Summer and keep Iron Wolf to herself. She sells Summer out to Angry Wolf, prostitutes herself - literally and figuratively - without a thought, and ends the book as the madam of a profitable whore-house by rebranding herself as fallen Spanish nobility.

Jake is even more messed up. He's actually tied with Iron Knife, because he had a thing for Iron Knife's white mother, Texanna. When she came back to her village a fallen woman with two mixed-race children, he tried to first proposition her and then rape her. He's the reason that Iron Knife had whip scars, because Jake's prostitute of choice slept with Iron Knife when he was like fourteen, then accused him of rape, and Jake killed her in his anger and then pinned the murder on Iron Knife.

He has some of the best lines in this book:

Yes, he would have her at least once and then she'd change her mind once he'd put a baby in her belly and take him as her protector. That was how his pa had gotten his mama. Next year, that could be Jake's baby in that cradle, his son sharing those full, swollen breasts with his daddy (62%).

"Missy," he whispered. "You just barely missed gettin' ole Jake's big rod rammed right down your little musket barrel" (62%).

"Hell, if you had as many pricks stickin' out of you as have been stuck in you, you'd look like a west Texas cactus" (82%).

There's so much more wtfery I could share, like the cat-fight, the whip fight, the gelding scene, the sociopathic younger sister line that goes nowhere, the tragic story of Texanna and War Bonnet, and the typos that get more and more abundant as the book goes on (as if the person reformatting it was getting so bored that they were just like, F it), including one where the "fierce braves raced to count coupon" (48%) instead of coup - because dammit, times are tough and groceries are expensive!

Oh - and let's not forget the rapey Spanish guy who kept repeating "Comprende?" and "Si" and "hombre" like that guy in your Spanish 1 class who missed every day but exam day and thought he could bluff his way out of it. Dude was just a phrase away from saying "bad hombres."

"You got too much spirit, puta whore! El Lobo likes his women docile as sheep. You need the fight taken out of you and I'm just the hombre to do it!" (36%)

I know what you're asking yourself. Is this a bodice ripper? (Well, okay, that's probably question #2 or #3. Right now, you're probably asking yourself: WTF???) I would say that this isn't a bodice ripper because the hero is actually very kind, and all the insane stuff comes at the expensive of the many villains who surface repeatedly to threaten the heroine with rape and the hero with bodily injury. The last third of the book is much better than the first 2/3 because that's when the author randomly decides to go into Gray Dove's and Jake Dallinger's backstories, so we can see them for the incredibly awful (but surprisingly complex) people that they really are, as well as getting more insight into the tragic and doomed love story of the hero's own parents, which I thought was really well done.

I originally thought that there was no way I could give this book anything more than one star... but now that I think about it, I feel like the last act of the book turned this book from boring-bad to wtf-bad. Both are bad, but one is vastly more entertaining than the other and offers up many interesting possibilities for self-amusement and satire. Would I recommend reading this as a straight romance? No (and I am side-eying the people who gave this book high marks who seemed genuine - what book did you read? Are there alternate editions circulating in Jekyll/Hyde format?).

To quote the aforementioned "El Lobo":

"This is gonna be mucho fun" (36%).

1 to 1.5 out of 5 stars (for ironic purposes, only; actual rating: -1,000,000)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Beloved Enemy by Amanda York



***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***

It's been a while since I read a good old-fashioned bodice ripper. There's nothing like them in today's market - and as liberal as I am, I find myself oddly fascinated by these un-PC, misogynistic train wrecks. BELOVED ENEMY is a fantastic OTT story of revenge. Stupid old Lanna is the "daughter" of this ruthless dude named Jared Malford. She's not actually his child, but he's raising her for reasons until she's 21. Lanna gets involved with this rakish guy named Rafe, but Rafe's best friend, Damon, has been wronged by Jared, so he sends Rafe out to see to be shanghaied and then rapes Lanna and keeps her prisoner on his boat to be married to him so he can take her money and then taunt her "father" about how he did his child wrong. To his surprise, Jared's all, LOL I don't care and P.S. GL with that.

Lanna and her traitorous body take up residence at Damon's plantation, where his half-black mistress named Indigo also lives. Indigo, by the way, is one of the best characters in this story because of her sheer determination and how she clawed herself out of every tragedy to rise up again and work whatever unpleasant situation she found herself in to her advantage by using her feminine wiles and cunning. She's like Scarlett O'Hara. Like, you can't believe her, but you also respect her, no matter how b*tchy she gets. I honestly felt pretty bad for her, to be honest. She was betrayed by her childhood friend (who was jelly that Indigo was prettier), and then this bitch (read: Lanna) comes along on her sweet gig and kicks up a fuss about her being there and Damon, the bastard, sends her off to this other plantation where she ends up getting raped every night by the master. Yeah, I'd hate Lanna too, after that. Who wouldn't?

Then things get even more awkward when Rafe comes back and Lanna is torn between lusting after her OTP and feeling loyal to Beth, the girl next door, who is Rafe's fiance and kind of reminds me of Melanie Hamilton from GONE WITH THE WIND, what with her whole pure and innocent and matyrish shtick. I did like Beth, but she wasn't really fleshed out at all because her entire purpose seemed to be as a foil to Lanna and her weird love-triangle-but-not-really between Rafe & Damon. Also like Melanie, she dies, and her death serves to make Lanna become a better person just as Melanie's death essentially served to make Scarlett realize how selfish/entitled she'd been all along. Except Lanna just crumples and becomes so traumatized that Damon gives in to what she wants because he feels so sorry for her, like she's just going to crumple to dust if he leaves her alone.

I think I would have liked Lanna more if she were like Scarlett - or even more like Indigo - and had all the agency and complexity of these other heroines. Instead, she had the spine of a wet rag and spent way too much time crying. Things get even crazier in the third act when Damon is captured by Jared and subjected to this intense and brutal whipping scene and then later on, severe burns after an attempt to blow up the ship goes horribly wrong. Lanna, thinking he's being imprisoned on this (Caribbean?) island instead of the brig, rushes out as soon as they dock to rescue him and ends up being tricked by this jailer who then subjects her to nightly rapes. I felt like Joan Dial/Amanda York was attempting to verbally duel with Rosemary Rogers to see who could torment their characters the most (Rogers is famous for brutal third acts with character tortures). She didn't win by any stretch (Rogers' heroines at least give as good as they get, and don't just crumple like teary rags), but it was an impressive effort nonetheless, and left me cringing.

There are actually LGBT characters in here, but the bisexual (and unfaithful) Llewellyn Davis is a cruel and manipulative traitor and his lover, Gideon, ends up committing suicide, which made me sad because I liked Gideon's character. Still, I felt like there inclusion was noteworthy, as BRs have a tendency to fetishize homoerotic scenes and make them characteristics of the bad guys. Llewellyn wasn't overtly evil, just corrupt and Gideon was never a bad guy, just a tragic one, and while it's unfortunate that the author succumbed to the bury your gays trope, I was surprised to see that her treatment of these characters was waaaaaay better than what you would expect to see from, say, Bertrice Small's work (where doing it up the butt pretty much brands you as the villain instantly).

Overall, I thought BELOVED ENEMY was really great and incredibly underrated. I bought it on impulse because it was available for Kindle for only $2.99 and I try to snap up as many of these rereleased bodice rippers as I can. The story is addictive and compelling, and until the last 50 pages or so, the pacing is pretty good. This would easily be a five star read except for a few niggling issues: The formatting is odd, with one chapter having random paragraph breaks for no reason, and there are a lot of typos scattered throughout. The author also foreshadows that one of the characters, Alain, and Indigo are Meant To Be, and hints throughout (I thought) that they would (or ought to) end up together, but at the end of the book Alain just sort of implies that he might end up with Indigo or someone like her and his storyline just petered out. Likewise, Rafe is written out of the storyline by the author just deciding to put him on an island filled with Polynesians when he decides to take one of the native girls as his lover. Indigo also just sort of disappears. I feel like the author had decided that she was going to be done by page X no matter what and just hastily tied up all these loose ends without really doing their respective storylines justice. Also, the war scenes at the end were boring because we've been waiting for Damon and Lanna to get over their big misunderstanding and when they finally do sit down and talk (even if it has to be at knife-point), she immediately splits them up again and let's be honest, those of us who stuck with this pile, we're reading it for Damon.

If you're a fan of bodice rippers, and in particular bodice rippers written by Rosemary Rogers, I think you will enjoy BELOVED ENEMY. It's not as un-PC as I feared, considering that it's about slavery, and while the hero is a rapist, cheating a-hole, he's not a completely cruel hero, either, and I found him more interesting than repulsive. There are just so many great characters in here and the scenery descriptions are all amazing. For $2.99, you'll be able to burn up a few hours in guilty pleasure while looking over your shoulder and hoping that no one you know sees what you're really reading. ;)

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Wildfire by Ilona Andrews



WILDFIRE was so good that I actually didn't want to review it right away or even read anything else. I just curled up in bed and watched mindless YouTube videos, thinking about how good this whole trilogy was (so far), and wondering why the hell it isn't a TV show when so much other bullshit is making it to prime time.

(Seriously, if nobody's bought the film/TV rights to this series yet, they better get cracking.)

The book gets off to a rough start, which made me wonder in the beginning if this was where the series finally jumps the shark. But no, everything evens out, and Nevada immediately sets out to establishing House Baylor, even though it means that she and her family and her relationship with Rogan are all going to become uncomfortably public.

Even worse, Rynda, Rogan's ex-fiance, has her husband kidnapped and being a helpless rag, gloms on to Rogan while they make an effort to figure out what happened to Brian Sherwood (an equally helpless rag). This being the world of Primes and whatnot, his disappearance is almost certainly rooted in yet another conspiracy filled with people who want Nevada dead...or alive, but totally under their control.

Nobody writes power struggles like Ilona Andrews. If you like court intrigue, the Hidden Legacy world features a whole lot of that, modernized. Magic is power in the HL universe, and those who have it are constantly using it to throw their weight around, create new alliances, and topple enemies. Nevada, who is a new player to this game, comes to this world as an outsider, and has to navigate a playing board where virtually everyone except perhaps Mad Rogan is an enemy.

The magic system in this book is also really great. It reminds me a lot of that Brandon Sanderson novel, STEELHEART, because it's all about superpowers...and while some of the classic abilities are there, she and her husband put a fresh spin on everything and make it all new and interesting. The end result is a universe that I felt utterly enchanted by in a way that I haven't really been by a book since reading Harry Potter or the Dark Materials trilogy. This is classic fantasy with a romance cover.

Also, goddamn - all the people in this book are pretty. I'd complain, but they're also extremely well fleshed-out characters with interesting flaws and idiosyncrasies, too. Bug was hilarious with how he shipped Rogan and Nevada, and Cornelius is scary AF but manages to be adorable, too. I could say more about why you should read this book but you'd just end up with a 10,000-word long essay about how sexy Mad Rogan is and I don't think that would be particularly edifying for any of you to read.

...Or maybe it would. ;O

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Stock the Crock: 100 Slow-Cooker Recipes that Home Cooks Can't Live Without by Phyllis Good



My mother loves her crock pot...so we decided to embark upon a mother-daughter cooking project. I applied for a ton of cookbook ARCs on Netgalleys for crock pots (there are more than you would think) and we read through this recipe book and others to try out some of the recipes and see if the book was crock yeah! or crock no!

Initial impression: even though there's 100 recipes in here, it doesn't really feel like a lot. Also, some of the recipes, especially the baking ones, involve using your crock pot like a steamer by inserting a cooking rack inside...and yeah, no, why not just use a stove in that case? Unless you don't have a stove...but still, it feels like way too much trouble.

The first recipe we actually tried were the slow-cooker brownies. We substituted cake flour for all-purpose flour. The recipe said (at least in the ARC version) that it would only take an hour to cook the brownies, but it took closer to two hours and forty-five minutes before they were done. I checked for other recipes online for crock pot brownies and most of the cooking times they gave listed the actual one (2.5-3 hours), which makes me wonder if someone crocked up on the time here. The texture of the brownies was pretty good - they were moist - but they were some of the most unattractive brownies I'd ever seen. After prying them out of the crock pot, only about one or two were photo-worthy.


The second recipe was for the Indian Lentil Soup. The instructions said it would take between 4.5-6.5 hours before it was ready, but it only took 3.5 hours (on high) before the soup was ready to eat. The instructions didn't specify a cooking temperature until the very end, prior to serving (high). Instead of using 7 cups of broth OR water for this recipe, we used 4 cups broth, 3 cups water, and a combination of orange and white sweet potatoes (instead of just orange). It tastes more like Thai soup than Indian because of all the coconut milk, but it's delicious and it's vegan, and the flavor balance is excellent. I would definitely make this soup again.



Inaccurate cooking times was definitely an issue with the recipes we tried, though, although the flavor was good (as long as we vigilantly monitored the food as it was being cooked). I think this would be a useful cookbook to have on hand but you would probably want to cook the food beforehand on days when you have time to keep an eye on it in order to get an idea of accurate times.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 21, 2017

Bared to You by Sylvia Day



My friends are constantly trying to force me to read erotica books - the more they think I'll dislike it, the more they want me to read it. I was wary about starting BARED TO YOU for several reasons: one; it's frequently referred to in the same breath as FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, which I did not like; two; I've been acquainted with this author before via her historical romance novels, which I also did not like; and three; it's got one of those vague non-summaries that doesn't tell me what the book is going to be about, which kind of makes me suspect that it's not going to have much in the way of substance besides, well, copious sex.

As it turns out, I was sort of correct and sort of incorrect on all three counts. BARED TO YOU is the story of an early-twenty-something and a late-twenty-something using kinky sex to self-medicate their traumas - only, instead of one of them being god-like and rich, they're both god-like and rich...and so is everyone else in the book. I'm still not sure if this levels the playing field, or if it just underscores the vapid, shallowness of these types of books.

***WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW***

I buddy-read this with my friend Sarah, and I have to agree with her that Gideon is a much better hero than Christian. As controlling and stalky as he is, at least he listens to the word "no" and doesn't beat her with belts and control her eating habits in order to come to term with his own demons. They actually do couple things together, like eat out (no, not just that way) and work out together, and go to charity balls...and other things that normal couples do together. The only downside is that Gideon apparently acts out rapes in his sleep, both on the receiving end and the giving end. Um.

The sex - and man, there was a lot of sex in this book - was actually good, for the most part, which was a pleasant surprise after reading ASK FOR IT and being treated to the not-so-sexy image of creamy bodily fluids gushing every which way. BARED TO YOU has some great scenes...but since this book is basically 70% sex or prelude to sex, they lose their power and get repetitive after a while.

Also, there's just some really bad scenes in here:

...his powerful body straining with the primal need to mate (91).

"I'm so deep in you...I can feel it against my stomach...feel my dick pounding into you" (137).

His balls were heavy and big, an audacious display of his powerful virility (162).

Gideon battered my tender sex with that brutally thick column of rigid flesh (230).

"You're milking the head of my dick with those hungry little squeezes" (237)

And some of the worst phrases for buttholes:
 the pucker of my anus (234)
my sensitive rosette (235)
that darkly sexual place (237)

I did find it a little irritating that the bisexual best friend of the hero sleeps around constantly with people of both sexes and basically comes across as a shallow jerk. The author gives a reason for this behavior, but it's still annoying to see characters conform to stereotypes (I also side-eyed her flamboyant gay boss). I'm all for inclusivity and practice makes perfect, but this is not a book I would ever pick up to fulfill any #diversefiction challenges. Let's put it that way.

Likewise, the way the other wom(en) are portrayed in this book made me feel similarly torn. Day tries to give them more substance than just that beautiful conniving temptress who swoops back into the hero's life to still him away from the virginal heroine. In this case, Gideon's women are portrayed with some degree of nuance (more so towards the end). The women who sleep with Cary (the bisexual BFF of the heroine), however, do not receive that same courtesy, and at one point, Eva refers to them as trash or something like that. Stay classy, Eva.

The way one of my coworkers described this book to me at my old job made it sound like this book was about assassins, and that title - Crossfire - made me think that I was about to get my hands on some Bastien Toussaint-type anti-hero. I think I know what happens next (based on her spoilers), and I'm curious enough to learn about Gideon and Eva's backstories that I'd probably pick up book 2. If it was cheap. I think my favorite part was when Eva, starry-eyed from her move from San Diego to New York, New York, marvels at the modern wonder of the garbage truck. Because of course, in California, we grind our garbage up and put it into fair trade coffee or smoke it in bongs, I guess. Please, tell me more about this New York-exclusive rubbish-processing behemoth on wheels... -_-

Edit: Can I just say that I'm so tickled by the fact that this edition has "discussion questions" in the back of the book? They're absolutely hilarious. Here are some of my favorites:

Initially, it's the physical attraction that draws Gideon to Eva, but by the time he lures her to his nightclub there's something deeper involved. What is it about Eva that causes Gideon to pursue her so relentlessly? (337)

Gideon's life revolves around his work and his philanthropic commitments; Eva's social life is more personal. How do these differences affect them as a couple? (338)

Gideon and Eva have a very sexual relationship. Considering their pasts, why do you think sex is such an important way for them to communicate? (338)

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Let Us Dream by Alyssa Cole



Women helped each other in ways small and large every day, without thinking, and that was what kept them going even when the world came up with new and exciting ways to crush them (164).

Reading this book made me so happy. I'm so glad I "buddy read" it with Korey, even though I was way too slow and she finished it a week before I did. As she said in her review, this is a satisfying read in Mango Mussolini's America. Two people of color, finding love and their dreams? YES to the please, TYVM.

Bertha is an ex-prostitute who is now madam of her own club for black people. Amir is a Bengali Muslim who she recently hired as a chef. The attraction between them is instant, but also fraught with difficulty because Amir has responsibilities to his family back home and Bertha has trust issues when it comes to men (for good reason). She's also a suffragette (yay!) and doesn't want to be with a man who sees her as a second class citizen.

The writing in this book is very good, and I thought the characterization was incredibly well-done. Cole in this book reminds me of Courtney Milan at her best, particularly with how Cole takes the narratives of people of color and historical feminists and weaves them into the story. We need more of that perspective in historical romances, in my opinion.

This is the third Alyssa Cole book I've read. The first, one of her short stories, didn't really wow me, but the writing was good enough that I thought a full-length novel might be better. The second, AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION, is about a black woman spying for the North while posing as a slave, and it was amazing. LET US DREAM is just as good, although length-wise it falls between the two aforementioned books, as it's not quite a short story, not quite a novel.

As of my writing this review (8/21), it's currently only 99-cents on Amazon. Go check it out!

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen



I've mostly gotten into romance novels and nonfiction lately, so I don't read as much literary fiction as I used to - which is a damn shame, but it is what it is. That is what book clubs are for! To force you to read those Important Novels that you know you should read for cultural reasons, but feel more like work than pleasure every time you try to slog through the pages.

When my book club picked THE SYMPATHIZER for our August read, I was excited because this book won the Pulitzer Prize and it's about a time period I don't know much about (Vietnam War). I took U.S. History, like other students, but I seem to recall the curriculum ending during the 1950s...probably to skip all that "controversial" stuff like hippies, the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War. Maybe that's changed since I was in school, but back in the day, I remember that our textbooks halted in the 1980s

Anyway, this book. It's difficult to summarize because it goes all over the place, plot-wise, but basically it's about this Vietnamese guy who's also half-French. After the fall of Saigon, he's sent to the America to report back to his fellow Vietnamese agents while also living with a group of refugees. While here, however, he gets immersed in U.S. culture, and encounters many hypocrisies and cruel double-standards in both cultures, which he comments on with dry, darkly amused wit that wouldn't be out of place in Joseph Heller's CATCH-22.

How to describe the writing? I have a pretty big vocabulary, but I learned several new words in this book, like glabrous, errata, froideur, and temerate (I kept a list because I wanted to look them up so I could use them myself later - I already managed to work glabrous in somewhere, which I feel very proud of). This is a dude who thinks nothing of using chiaroscuro and palimpsest in the same paragraph (and those were two of the words that I already knew, because I am a huge nerd).

ALSO HELLO YOU SEEM TO BE MISSING SOME QUOTATION MARKS.

I swear, this guy, Jose Saramago, and Cormac McCarthy are all running around somewhere cackling gleefully while swinging around a giant sack of unused quotation marks and cheers-ing themselves for their artistry with the frustrated tears of their readers.

How to describe the story? It's a weird war story that's too dark to be funny but too funny to be dark, so it sits in some weird limbo of you reading this and feeling increasingly awkward and uncomfortable, like you're not sure whether to laugh or run screaming into the night. Highlights include necrophiliac reverse-tentacle hentai (read: he has sex with a dead squid); a pickled two headed baby in a jar; and an ass-hat director who's making an exploitative film about Vietnam.

Did I like this book? Eh. It was really difficult to read. I liked parts of it, and it has many quotable passages, but overall it felt too much like work and I felt the tone was really imbalanced. Also, the lack of quotation marks make it really difficult to follow who is talking, especially since sometimes there will be multiple dialogues going on within a single paragraph. I was glad to get a new, fresh perspective on a war I didn't know much about, but overall was left feeling pretty disappointed.

2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin



Is this a feminist book?

I just read this book called YOU PLAY THE GIRL, a book of essays about pop culture written through a feminist lens, and one of the essays was about Stepford Wives - I seem to recall the author juxtaposed it against the Desperate Housewives and writing a good deal about what it means to be a "housewife," whether you're a good one or a dysfunctional one. I really liked what the author had to say, and it actually motivated me to go dig out my old copy of STEPFORD WIVES for a belated reread.

***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD***

Disclaimer: I'm a feminist, so obviously I'm a little biased, but in my opinion, STEPFORD WIVES is a feminist book in the same vein as THE HANDMAID'S TALES. STEPFORD is set in the middle of the civil rights era, where Betty Friedan is giving her talks and NOW chapters are rallying for equal rights for women. Men, for the first time, are suddenly expected to share in the housework, and women are being empowered to seek out their own jobs and goals independent of marriage and children, becoming sexually and fiscally autonomous.

One of the biggest issues that women continue to face is objectification. You see this a lot when sexist dudes talk about women, reducing them to their parts ("grab some p*ssy," "Tits or GTFO"), or talking about them as if they are trophies to be won for their accomplishments ("I'm such a nice guy, so why don't I have a girlfriend?"). It's gotten better, but not nearly as much as it should have, and one of the more chilling aspects for me is how modern STEPFORD WIVES feels, despite being published in 1972. I don't know about you, but it doesn't speak very highly towards our society that we're still being plagued by the same exact issues almost fifty years later. Especially since the chilling climax of this book is objectification in the ultimate sense: taking living, breathing women and replacing them with actual objects: in this case, robots.

I've read this book several times over the course of my life, and with every reread I take something new from the text. I feel like I was able to appreciate it more this time because I've been reading more books about history and feminism, so I have a better appreciation for the zeitgeist of the time of this book's publication, and what the broader historical context behind it was. In fact, I would say STEPFORD WIVES actually improves with subsequent reads, because there are all these sinister hints that you pick up on while reading between the lines that make it even more terrifying.

Examples:

When Joanna first finds out about the Men's Association, she is against it. She expects her husband, who claims to be a feminist, will be, too, but he joins because "the only way to change it is from the inside" (6). The irony here is that the only changes being made on "the inside" are occurring within the context of her marriage: Walter sabotages Joanna so slowly that by the time she finally feels the noose tightening, it's already too late.

After one of his Men's Association meetings, Walter comes home late and masturbates furiously in their bed, but acts ashamed when she catches him: His eye-whites looked at her and turned instantly away; all of him turned from her, and the tenting of the blanket at his groin was gone as she saw it, replaced by the shape of his hip (15). They have sex at her insistence, which ends up being "one of their best times ever - for her, at least" and she says, "What did they do...show you dirty movies or something?" (16). This is one of those moments where, in subsequent rereads, the reader wonders: did the members of the Men's Association indoctrinate Walter by showing him what they do to their wives, and did the possibilities of that excite him instead of horrifying him?

Towards the end, after Bobbie, a friend to Walter and Joanna, "changes", Walter hesitates when it's time to say goodbye: Bobbie moved to Walter at the door and offered her cheek. He hesitated - Joanna wondered why - and pecked it (77). I took this to mean that Walter is thinking of his own wife's pending transformation and feeling guilt and uncertainty. Should he go through with it? When Joanna is worried about her friend, Walter has this to say: "There's nothing in the water, there's nothing in the air....They changed for exactly the reasons they told you: because they realized they'd been lazy and negligent. If Bobbie's taking an interest in her appearance, it's about time. It wouldn't hurt YOU to look in a mirror once in a while" (86). He goes on to say: "You're a very pretty woman and you don't do a damn thing with yourself any more unless there's a party or something" (86). That's when I felt like it became too late for Joanna. In the midst of her mental breakdown, she let herself - and the house - go, and Walter decided he didn't want to deal with that, any of it, anymore. Why settle for a flawed woman when you could have a perfect one?

When Joanna tries to run away from the women and the men from the Men's Association corner her, they hunt her down like an animal and mock her fear. I took this to mean that the objectification was complete: they no longer saw her as human - they knew she was about to become a robot, and so to them, she was just a thing. What makes this even more ironic is when they say, "[W]e don't want ROBOTS for wives. We want real women" (114). Because I've heard so many men say similar things - that they want smart, clever, beautiful women...but there's always a qualifier. As long as they don't try too hard, as long as they aren't more successful than me, as long as they aren't shrill or know-it-all.

The Men of Stepford want "real" women...but they also don't want flawed, forgetful women who sometimes let themselves go and don't want to do all the housework. They want the women of their fantasies made real: they want Pygmalion.

"Suppose one of these women you think is a robot - suppose she was to cut herself on the finger, and bleed. Would THAT convince you she was a real person? Or would you say we made robots with blood under the skin?" (114)

The ending of this book is depressing AF. I'm not sure what the message is, exactly, either - is it saying that men are inherently sexist and unwilling to move towards equality? Or is it a warning of the reductio ad absurdum variety of what objectification can lead to if left unchecked? And what of the children: are they going to groom their daughters to become robots when they come of age as well, marrying themselves off to the highest bidder? The story becomes even bleaker if you consider the possibilities. I took it as a warning, and a criticism of the patriarchy, but STEPFORD is open to so many possible interpretations, and I think that's what makes it such an interesting and lasting book.

3.5 out of 5 stars

You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages by Carina Chocano



This author's name sounded familiar to me, which was odd - because as far as I knew, I hadn't read any of her works. Netgalley strikes again! As it turns out, Carina Chocano had published an essay in another feminist book I read recently, called NASTY WOMEN. The essay, titled "We Have a Heroine Problem" was about the Madonna/whore lens with which we view women in the public eye, except it's more like the paragon/demon complex (my name, BTW). Basically, women in the public eye are either put on pedestals or villanized depending on how well (or how poorly) they conform to society's gender norms.

YOU PLAY THE GIRL is a collection of essays about women in pop culture, and some of the confusing or even downright negative messages that these female representatives send to the populace. Chocano spans an impressive range of material. Just a few of the topics she hits on: Playboy Bunnies, sex dolls, Stepford Wives, Amy Schumer's Trainwreck, the Ghostbusters reboot, Flashdance, Pretty Woman, Katharine Hepburn, Mad Men, Maleficent, and the Desperate Housewives, just to name a few.

Sometimes these pop-cultural essays make me side-eye the author a little because two bad things can happen (apart from the book just being generically bad for purely technical reasons): 1) the essays are tone-deaf and either miss the point, or spend far too much time circling around it, or 2) the essays are unoriginal and make points that you could find on any blogspot or wordpress-type blog *cough*.

NOT SO, HERE!

In YOU PLAY THE GIRL, Chocano writes with vivid freshness, delivering new insights to books and movies you may have seen or watched dozens of times and never really thought deeply about. She talks about feminism, she talks about sexism, she talks about motherhood, adolescence, sexuality. There is so much ground covered in here, and I spent several nights last week getting only about 4 hours of sleep, tops, due in part to my inability to put this book down.

I really recommend this if you're a feminist or a pop culture enthusiastic. This author is just fantastic and has such an amazing way of writing in clear and concise terms. If she published another collection of essays like this, I think I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Hidden Jewel by V.C. Andrews



"V.C. Andrews" as we knew and loved her died in 1986. Subsequent titles are published by a ghostwriter hired by the estate, Andrew Neiderman. The first Neiderman/Andrews book I read was one of the later titles published in the mid-2000s, when I guess he decided that he gave no f*cks and was going to write whatever, because it was about a creepy school and not a Gothic family drama - what. It actually put me off Andrews books for a while, because it was so bad.

One of my friends intervened and told me that what I had read was V.C. Andrews in the same way that New Coke is Coke - AKA, not. So I went back and read MY SWEET AUDRINA and FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC and was blown away at the difference; V.C. Andrews is not high literature, but she writes trash with glitz and glam and rhinestones the hell out of those old musty newspapers, so even though you know that you're reading garbage, you're reading sparkly garbage (which is better).

With that in mind, I decided to go back and revisit "V.C. Andrews" (as done by Neiderman), thinking that the early books - the ones written when he actually still gave f*cks - might be better.

To my surprise...they were!

HIDDEN JEWEL is actually the fourth book in the Landry series, about Ruby's daughter, Pearl, but I decided to treat it as a standalone and just dove in and man is it insane. Pearl is a socialite with a popular boyfriend and a graduation party coming up, and she wants to be a doctor. Her boyfriend dumps her for an evil slutty type on the day of her party since she doesn't put out. After that, every male character tries to sexually molest Pearl, including her father (well, sort of - he just disrobes, thinking she's her mom, and pulls some "Paint me like your French girls"-type Titanic BS which, understandably freaks Pearl out), an interning doctor (aka, Dr. Bad Touch) who invites her to study only to lecture her about vaginismus and dyspareunia and then attempts to determine whether or not she's frigid (the leading cause of vaginismus, according to him) by undressing her and telling her she has "wonderfully healthy skin" (86), a creepy swamp dude who tries to pull some Craster-type BS by abducting her and forcing her to be his shed-wife via a chain and some beatings, and then the actual patriarchal-type love interest who's supposed to be a good guy but comes across as a not-so-smooth-talking-creep circa 1959.

It's got all sorts of wacky hijinks, like family curses, voodoo (Pearl's grandmother is a traiteur), deaths, alcoholism, and sex, all set against the backdrop of Louisiana, with some half-hearted attempts to imbue it with some Cajun culture. I fully expected to despise this book like the other "V.C. Andrews" book I read, so you could color me surprised when I actually found myself enjoying this trashy dreck. Neiderman is trying so hard and it's actually endearing, because he is almost successful at capturing that elusive V.C. Andrews Classic style and there are some genuinely beautiful descriptions in here, mostly of the food and the nature variety.

The sex? Not so much.

We exploded against each other. I bit down on his ear so hard I thought I tasted blood (279)

...it was a long, flowing stream of passion that climbed higher and higher until it burst in a waterfall, pounding rocks below again and again and again, each time punctuated with a bigger, happier Yes.

Obligatory visual interlude:


I would read the other books in this series, and maybe also the Cutler & Casteel series, too. I'm digging this early Neiderman vibe. It's not as good as the original, but at least it's trying.

Stepback pic from the die-cut Pocket Books edition:

 

I'm not sure who the creepy dude in blue is, but I think it's supposed to be Dr. Bad Touch(?).

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Countess by Catherine Coulter



The only Catherine Coulter books I've read prior to THE COUNTESS were two of her bodice rippers. One of them was okay (it was the "extensively rewritten" edition of one of her bodice ripper classics). The other was annoying and I hated it. This, averaged out, did not seem particularly reassuring and I told myself that if I picked up THE COUNTESS and hated it that I would simply chuck all of her books into the donation bin unread. To my surprise, however, I actually enjoyed THE COUNTESS quite a bit!

Andrea "Andy" Jameson is a headstrong heiress who has been indulged by her grandfather and has serious issues with her actual father. She falls for a young man named John who seems to like her dog almost as much as he likes her, but finds herself afraid of him (for reasons that will be explained later). She ends up marrying herself off to a much safer option - an older man who promises that he won't touch her. Unfortunately, this older man is the uncle to John. Oops.

Awkwardness abounds as Andy lives in the same house as both John and Lawrence (the uncle) as well as John's brother, Thomas, his wife Amelia, and the daughter of Lawrence's previous wife, who allegedly committed suicide by jumping out from one of the windows of the rooms adjoining Andy's. The relationships between these various family members are complex and fraught with rivalries. Plus, there's a creepy mystery surrounding Lawrence's previous wife's death. Especially since several attempts are made on Andy's own life in increasingly bolder attempts.

Andy is a great heroine. She's headstrong and brave without being an idiot (the previous heroines written by this author were both idiots). I see that this book was also published as THE AUTUMN COUNTESS and, like the bodice ripper I read, is also "extensively rewritten." I'm not sure what the author changed, but it actually works here. The plot is spooky, the heroine is brave, the hero is dashing and manly, and the supporting characters are all interesting and serve as more than just hapless plot points to pepper the story with mystery and red herrings.

Also, the villain is creepy AF:

"I have decided to take you, Andrea, as a man takes a woman. You are a virgin. I have not enjoyed a virgin in a great number of years. It will be exciting. I won't mind you fighting me, but not all that much. Just a bit to give excitement to the taming. Since you (spoiler), you must obey me. Ah, to have your virgin's blood on me, to feel my seed deep inside you. I will enjoy that. I will be the only man ever to have you" (319).

Creepy.

P.S. Since I noticed nobody else has posted it yet, here's the stepback to the 1999 edition:


4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Happy Mail by Eunice and Sabrina Moyle



I'm going to tell you a secret: one of the things I miss most about being a kid is receiving snail mail from my friends. I grew up in a time when not everybody had internet, so if you wanted to invite someone to your birthday party you didn't send out a group text or create a Facebook event - you sent out birthday invitations and then asked people to call back and RSVP.

As an adult, there is something so incredibly nostalgic about putting pen to paper and writing to someone the old-fashioned way. I'm fascinated with Happy Mail and follow the ardent practitioners of this glorious craft with enthusiasm on Instagram. I have a hoard of unused washi tape and other craft supplies, and have been dying to use them. Maybe this book, I thought, will be the impetus to finally get me to get up the courage and try this elusive but oh-so-compelling Happy Mail project.

Unfortunately, this book...is not very good. There are three crucial steps, you see.

Step 1: Have perfect handwriting.
Step 2: Be an amazing artist.
Step 3: Copy these step-by-step templates instead of embracing your creativity.

Look, maybe it's my fault. I was hoping for a style guide that gives you ideas on how to use printed washi tape, glitter, rhinestones, and other things. Kind of like Pinterest, but in book form and only for Happy Mail. Instead this book gives you a set amount of designs and fonts to copy and send out. The back even features pre-made and pre-illustrated cards that you can punch out and send. What blasphemy is this! Pre-made? That defeats the purpose of Happy Mail, doesn't it?

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump's America by Samhita Mukhopadhyay



The last presidential election made me very upset. Like many Americans, I asked myself, "How did this man get elected?" But also, "Why were so many people willing to overlook all the terrible things he said? Why did 53% of women vote for him, despite the remarks he made about women of all kinds?" And, most terrifyingly of all: "How did we become so willing to turn a blind eye to, or, worse, actively participate in or encourage acts of aggression and hate towards those who are different?"

NASTY WOMEN is a collection of essays from various feminist writers about Hillary's campaign, Trump's victory, and what they believe the aftermath of the election means for women - and for Americans, more broadly.

Some of the essays are filled with anger, some with sadness, some with hope. Some of the essays are written by queer women and women of color. Some of the essays are written by women who were born here, and some from women who came here as immigrants. There is a lot of diversity in these essays, which really added depth to this collection and made it complex and multi-faceted.

I've included a break-down of all the essays in my status updates for this book on Goodreads (all 47 of them), but here is a collection of what I see as this book's "greatest hits."

"Are Women Persons?" by Kate Harding discusses the flaws of some of the pioneering feminists, like Susan B. Anthony, who was definitely a product of her times in that she could be racist as f*ck. It cautions that historically, feminism was a white upper-class women's issue; and while these women helped paved the road for where we are now and their frustration at being held back by condescending men still resonates for many, we must not make their mistakes by throwing people of color under the bus or failing to include them when advancing feminist issues.

"Trump, The Global Gag Rule, and the Terror of Misinformation" by Jill Filipovic goes into Trump's extremely cruel expansion of the gag rule, which basically penalizes foreign groups from discussing or providing abortions and birth control to foreign countries. It's heart-breaking, but powerful.

"Is There Ever a Right Time to Talk to Your Children About Fascism?" by Kera Bolonik is written by the granddaughter of holocaust survivors and discusses how many of Trump's supporters and campaign tactics mirror that of fascist Germany during WWII.

"Permission to Vote for a Monster: Ivanka Trump and Faux Feminism" by Jessica Valenti turned out to be one of my favorites. It's a discussion of the women conservatives champion - women who are content to play by the rules set by men and who don't want to make waves, and condemns conservative women who co-opt "feminism" to push their own agendas. It helps explain the mentality of the white women who voted for Trump.

"X Cuntry: A Muslim-American Woman's Journey" by Randa Jarrar was so weird and so unlike any of the other more traditionally formatted essays in this book that it ended up being totally memorable. It's a series of dream-like diary entries written by a Palestinian immigrant discussing her encounters with racism in the toxic sociopolitical climate leading up to Trump's election.

"Trust Black Women" by Zerlina Maxwell gives the reasons black women overwhelmingly (94%) voted for Hillary Clinton. It's a good essay. There were several other similar essays in this collection, but I felt like this one was the best. Maybe because it ends on a note of hope & I'm a hopeless fool.

"All American" by Nicole Chung ends this book on a strong, resonant note. Chung is the adopted daughter of two white people (she's Korean-American). She talks about how the aftermath of the election has affected her, and her fear for her children because of their ethnicity and also because one of them has autism. She discusses the countless microaggressions she encounters from people who are so ignorant that they don't even realize they're being offensive, and the tense discussions with her conservative parents who voted for Trump and regard anyone different as suspicious.

This really is a fantastic collection from a varied and talented group of essayists. I would honestly recommend this book to anyone who was #WithHer and is feeling angry, scared, hopeless, or sad. The editors went out of their way to include a diverse array of women with many different views when it comes to the dual but related subjects of liberalism and feminism. I heartily recommend it!

Bonus pictures from the SF Women's March:

 

 Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

Lady Stuff: Secrets to Being a Woman by Loryn Brantz



I'm reading some pretty heavy stuff right now - nonfiction about politics & a work of historical fiction about the Vietnam war. It's nice to break up the darker reads with a few light ones, so I decided to crack into my cookbook and comic book ARCs for some moments of respite.

LADY STUFF won me over with the title, because I'm a lady! I do stuff! Obviously, I should be able to relate to this book on a personal level because of that, right? RIGHT?

#LadyStuff

I've read a number of these girl-geared comic books of the twenty-first century at this point. The first and probably most well-known was probably HYPERBOLE AND A HALF by Allie Brosh, which remains my favorite (where's the sequel?). Then there's Sarah Anderson and her Scribbles and Ruby Elliot's IT'S ALL ABSOLUTELY FINE, which is a lot like HYPERBOLE except less insightful and a tad more cliche. If I had to rank them, I'd probably go 1. HYPERBOLE, 2. SCRIBBLES, 3. FINE, 4. LADY STUFF.

LADY STUFF is not a bad book, but like most of the book I mentioned, it tends to touch on the usual themes. "Oh, personal grooming is such a pain, right?" "Oh, staying in bed is so great, right?" "LOL, I'm so lazy. How lazy am I? Just look and see!" "I like cats! Liking cats is so on trend!" "I like dogs! Everyone likes dogs!" "I'm so introverted! I feel so awkward around people! I'm gonna go hide, k!"

I relate to all of those things hard (especially the introversion bit), so I get why these are such overarching themes in girl-geared comic books. A lot of people feel introverted and isolated so it's fun to poke some gentle fun at that while also embracing it and even celebrating one's introversion. But at the same time, there's only so many incarnations of the same comedic material that one can take. Her makeup panels were probably the most relatable to me because I am forever messing up cat-eyes and going back and trying to make things even and f*cking everything up instead.

Overall, this wasn't a bad book but it wasn't anything new either, and other artists have done it better and more to my taste. Still, if you enjoyed any of the other artists I mentioned, you should definitely check this one out, as you will probably enjoy LADY STUFF too, because #LadyStuff.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Kawaii Doodle Class: Sketching Super-Cute Tacos, Sushi, Clouds, Flowers, Monsters, Cosmetics, and More by Zainab Khan



I feel like I've been on the internet for ever. Now there's so many graphics available for people who want to use them, but there weren't nearly as many around in the early days of the internet. When I was teenager (oh God, I sound so old), we used 100 x 100 icons and "sprites" or pixel art to express ourselves and show off our interests & personality.

I was naturally attracted to the art of KAWAII DOODLE CLASS because the illustrations looked so much like (and perhaps were inspired by) the pixel sprites that I loved so much when I was fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen.

Normally, I side-eye these drawing books because they are either overly simple or else way too complicated, but in this case, the step-by-step guide is really handy and very easy to do! The only ones that were too complicated for me were the flowers - especially that confounded daisy.

If you have a kid who's into Shopkins (or you're really into Shopkins), I think they'd really enjoy this book, as the author has them divided into sections: food, monsters, household items, seasonal items, nature - just like Shopkins. Plus, there's room at the end of each "chapter" for you to practice, and then at the very end there's some "I spy" type games and black and white images you can color.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

I'm really glad I applied for this after all! It was really cute.

4 out of 5 stars

Hedgehog Wisdom: Little Reasons to Smile by Carolyn Parker



This is one of those books that you can find in gift shops & the like. I think they're called "novelty books" and they don't really serve any purpose beyond giving as gifts and/or keeping on a coffee table as a cute conversation starter.

HEDGEHOG WISDOM features two African pygmy hedgehogs, one gray and one white. Interspersed with the various hedgehog glamor shots are feel-good quotes that are designed to be either comforting or inspirational.

I thought this was a pretty good book for what it was. I've read a lot of books like this, and it was no better or worse than any of the others I've read! Some of the quote parts missed the mark, but the pictures were cute. I love hedgehogs.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, August 4, 2017

Disciplined by the Duke by Alyson Chase



I blame Heather for making me want to read this book. She told me that there was a hawt villain in it, and I'm a sucker for those. I didn't even read the summary; I went to Netgalley and applied for the book on that premise alone. I read it cold.

#HOTVILLAINSFOREVER

Now that I've finished, I'm not quite sure how I feel about DISCIPLINED BY THE DUKE. For the first sixty pages, there was a decent build-up of sexual tension, a sinister and compelling villain, and a hero who was pretty hot what with his talk of forbidden play (although what's up with the Victorian edition of the Red Room of Pain on the cover?).

BUT - unfortunately for this book, it's a mishmash of two books that took its concept (sister protecting her other sister and allowing herself to be blackmailed because of it vs. erotic BDSM historical) and did it one better.

Cases in point: RUTHLESS and LORD SAVAGE, respectively.

***SPOILERS TO FOLLOW FROM THIS POINT ON***

Elizabeth's sister is in jail for murdering her father (it's suggested he abused the sister, possibly sexually). Elizabeth says, many times, that she will do anything to save her, and this means putting herself under the employ of the nefarious and devilishly good-looking Earl of Westmore, who wants her to seduce the Duke of Montague in order to steal a letter that he desperately wants.

The Earl of Westmore is a great villain. I thought at first that he was the love interest (I have issues, I think), and then when I found out he wasn't, I thought he was going to be one of those villainous characters who ends up getting his own book later on (YAY :D). But no.

The author kills him off.

Boo.

Anyway, Elizabeth arrives at the Duke's house and is determined to achieve the letter without seduction, but she's so attractive and of course she catches his eye immediately. And of course the Duke has a policy about not tupping the help but of course he makes an exception for her.

I mean, it's a romance novel, so I think we expected that, right?

Well, what I didn't expect were the silliness of the sex scenes. Milking, tunneling (c*ck gophers, anyone?), desire (used as a noun, to refer to various fluids), and mewl are used in abundance.

Here are some quotes that I found particularly jarring:

His thumb swiped around her clitoris...(130) Because her vag is a dating app? #SwipeRight

His cock was hard enough to pound a horseshoe into shape... (129)

Marcus was so hard he could pound nails with his cock (69).

I love that one of these quotes is on p. 69, btw. But also, was the author reading a book about blacksmiths while writing this book and thinking oh yeah, dip that ingot, pound that flesh anvil, wield the mighty c*ck hammer of sexual glory? I mean, maybe I shouldn't talk, since I once wrote an erotica novel comparing a c*ck to a Christmas tree (the veins were described as the lights, or something equally horrible - "garlanded by veins" may have been the phrase), but wow. Smithing level: 69.

I was willing to forgive the bad sex scenes though, since those are part of what make erotica so fun. Bertrice Small was famous for her "coral-tipped cones" and "honey ovens" and "coral-red flowers of womanhood wet and pouting with desire", and I love Small because she truly gave no f*cks. But what I could not forgive was the dumb.

Someone tries to kill Liz and she's just like, meh, oh well. She faints for no reason. She falls down in a field and then proceeds to lie there and freeze to death. Montague finds her, and then immediately after warming her up, has sex with her half-thawed self even though she says no. What. Liz betrays Westmore and knows she must act quickly to save her sister before he takes his revenge out on her, but of course there's time for one last round of hide the hammer in the tool-shed. Surprise, surprise, when she FINALLY gets her butt to the jail, her sister's been sent off to be hung.

I think the heroine herself sums this book up best:

Damn, she was stupid (200).

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Paperbacks from Hell: A History of Horror Fiction from the '70s and '80s by Grady Hendrix



Given my love for vintage novels of all kinds, you can imagine my reaction when I saw that vintage font peeping at me on Netgalley with its classic Gothic serifs, and red-black contrast. It looked exactly like a horror novel from the late 70s/early 80s. "What on Earth is that?" my inner book goblin cried. "I must have the precious!"

It turned out to be a meta-book published by Grady Hendrix, the author of Horrorst├Âr. PAPERBACKS FROM HELL is a celebration of horror from its early days to the 90s. It contains bite-sized reviews from his favorites - or at least the most memorable - discusses the game-changers and front-runners in the various sub-genres of horror (e.g. Gothic romance, vampire novels, splatterpunk, serial killer books, haunted houses, etc.), has beautiful, high-quality pictures of some of the cover art (and even goes into some of the more notable arists themselves), and is basically a celebration of the creepy and the wyrd.

I expected it to be good, since it was published by Quirk Books and I've liked 90% of everything of theirs I've read, but I wasn't expecting this book to be this good. Some of these meta-books can be pretentious, but PAPERBACKS FROM HELL was just pure fun. Finally, someone who gets the ironic, self-indulgent pleasure of indulging in the ridiculously dated and ridiculously fun books of yesteryear! He even gives a nod to bodice rippers, when discussing Gothic romances.

OBVIOUSLY my favorite sections were the Gothic/vampire romance sections and the sections on teen horror, because those two niches are my jam and I will spread them as thickly on toast as I can until the bread tears (or until I run out of shelf space). Crummy metaphor (ha - toast, get it?); let's just say that there's a genre of horror that I like and there's genres of horror that I don't like.

HOWEVER, even though not all of these horror novels are my cups of tea, Hendrix made me want to revisit the genre. I used to read exclusively horror when I was a teen - Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Anne Rice, Dean Koontz - THE DARKER THE BETTER, I thought! Until I started having nightmares all the time...and at fourteen became briefly too traumatized to stand too near the shower drain (or the sink) after reading IT. After that, I started to tone it down.

His enthusiasm and the amazing cover art would make this a must-read on their own, but the content is also great and I feel like he brings fresh insight and humor to the genre that is just extra. If you're a fan of horror at all, you should pick this up. It might bulk up your to-read list, but that's ok, right?

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Comic Book Story of Video Games: The Incredible History of the Electronic Gaming Revolution by Jonathan Hennessey



The other day at work, I picked up my trusty bottle of iced black coffee (lightly sweetened, no milk). I took a sip - and immediately, my mouth went whoa, something is wrong here! Did the coffee go rancid? But no, it did not have that nasty "gone-off" taste; it was just bitterer than I was used to. I picked up the bottle and eyed the label: it said UNSWEETENED.

There was nothing wrong with the coffee - it was actually so smooth that drinking it black and unsweetened was perfectly acceptable to me - but I hadn't signed up for black coffee. I hadn't mentally prepared for black coffee because it wasn't what I had asked for or even expecting.

That's kind of how I feel about this book.

THE COMIC BOOK STORY OF VIDEO GAMES caught my eye immediately when I was looking at ARCs I might want to read because of the 80s styled cover and the intriguing title. I'm an ex-gamer with a geeky streak you could right a souped-up Delorean down; there was nothing about that title that did not intrigue me.

Unfortunately, Yzabel was right on the money when she says that, for a while, at least, the focus of this book is not about video games themselves, but the various technological advancements that made the invention of video games possible. Which, okay, is interesting, but not really what I signed up to read about - and it goes on for waaaay too long. The actual video game parts don't really begin until around p. 70 or 80, which leaves a significant portion of the book being not about games. (That was a really awkwardly worded sentence, but bear with me, guys.)

I did enjoy learning about the games. Hennessey discusses most of the major systems, although I was surprised he left out Virtual Boy and the Power Glove. Also, the vintage Tiger handheld electronic LCD games don't even warrant a mention? I had one of those long before I ever had a Gameboy. He does, however, discuss the "arms race" (my phrasing) between Nintendo and Sega, the oversaturation of the game market in the 80s followed by that fatal market crash, the switch from cartridge to disk, and the emergence of Playstation and X-Box following Sega's exit. Oh - and Pokemon GO, ofc.

The art is also fun. Even in the parts that aren't about video games, the artist will have little Easter eggs placed here and there to remind you that, yes, you are reading a book about video games - or at least, you will be, soon. I was pleased to see Banjo Kazooie, the guy from Balloon Fight, and Rayman, as well as a Tapper appearance when one of the panels is set in a bar. Some of the panels will be in 8-bit or 16-bit styles randomly, too, which captures that 80s nostalgia feel.

I just wish more of the book had been about games.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 out of 5 stars